Should I use food in dog training?

M’Ocean enjoying the food at a party, using a snufflemat!

This is a question I am often asked, and I see the question online as well. And no wonder: how often do we see “The Dog Whisperer” using food on his program?

But truthfully, if you “don’t want to use food,” your dog will die. You are going to “use food,” and every time you do, your dog will learn something about how the world operates, and how s/he can operate the world. F

In behavior science terminology, food is a primary reinforcer. That means, we are born with an instinctive drive to get food, and so the delivery of food reinforces (ie strengthens) whatever behavior happened right before the food was delivered. Other primary reinforcers for dogs are freedom, physical comfort, opportunities to sniff, hunt, play, socialize. Eventually, we will learn to use ALL of these primary (plus secondary) reinforcers to shape the behaviors of our dogs.

See one of my dogs laying nicely on a mat, in a quiet down-stay in a busy dog training hall? That’s my dog, “begging at the table,” except there is no table and the cue isn’t me sitting down at a table with a plate of food. The cue is the mat, and the context of where we are and what we’re doing, and they know if they lay there (you could call that “beg”) long enough, the wait will be rewarded.

Why is it that people often “don’t want to use food,”but they aren’t as reluctant to punish? Maybe food is inconvenient? Instead of delivering treats, Cesar Milan says “fsst!”, and then he uses (and sells) pinch/prong/shock/choke, and if you watch enough episodes with the sound turned off, you’ll see him choking, twisting a dog’s ear, or delivering his famous swift kick to the ribs (no close ups of that). But no food.

Use of force or punishment is reinforcing to us. It makes us feel powerful as we can see an immediate impact, it creates an illusion of control or success, but what we don’t see immediately is the longterm impacts. Using force and punishment builds uncertainty into dogs. It stimulates reluctance or resistance, avoidance in our pet, when what we really want is to get them to participate.

And just so we’re on the same page, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists just came out with a position paper, reflecting decades of research, that reinforcement based training is the most effective way to resolve any behavior problem. https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/ .

So, learning how to most effectively, efficiently use food, as well as other reinforcers, is a key component of understanding how to train any animal. Food is not the only primary reinforcer. Freedom and movement, physical comfort, are also a primary reinforcers that pet owners dish out arbitrarily, unconsciously delivering reinforcement when dogs are barking at the door, pulling at the leash, or otherwise misbehaving.

Learning how to use food and freedom, as well as secondary (learned) reinforcers, such as toys, games, cues, allows dogs to become confident in how the world works. Instead of avoiding you (or Cesar’s “sst” which he often follows with a swift kick to the ribs or off camera ear pinch), your dog is orienting to you, and offering you behaviors that s/he knows will help the dog get where or what he wants. You’re working with your dog, instead of just trying to control your dog.

Using food consciously in dog training is like teaching your dog how to drive you, like you’d teach a kid to drive a car: this is always your gas pedal, and this is always brake. And the car doesn’t go by itself, you need to have the key and you need to know how to start, stop and steer the car. You need to know the rules. If you don’t know how to use primary and secondary reinforcers, but instead deliver reinforcers with a sprinkle of punishers haphazardly throughout the day, that would be like trying to teach someone how to drive when red sometimes means go. If you aren’t consciously aware of reinforcement and how you are using it, your dog will be confused about how to successfully operate your world.

Bottom line: yeah, you are going to use food. It’s impossible to avoid “using food.” So the bigger question is, do you know HOW to use food? That’s where we begin.

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